Katarina lay motionless on the damp, cold pavement, almost hidden by the masonry that surrounded her. Her grey-coloured greatcoat blended in with the ruins. Not only did it help protect her from the elements, but it also hid her from view. To anyone not within a few feet of her, she was just another pile of bricks and concrete, as though from the dark, bombed-out buildings beside her.
Gradually, an odd feeling came over her. She felt that she was not alone. A pale light began to push away the oppressive darkness that enveloped her.
When she opened her eyes, she saw an elderly man standing there, a man that seemed familiar.
“Herr Schiller?” she croaked. “Is it you? Have you come to take me?”
The old man smiled, and Katarina felt all the pain and weariness slip away.
“No, Matron, your time has not yet come. I have come to help you, as you helped me all those years ago.”
Katarina was confused.
“I don't understand. You are dead. I saw you die!”
A thought suddenly occurred to her, but she didn't feel afraid. Quite the opposite, in fact. She felt calm and serene.
“Am I dead too?” she asked.
The man smiled benignly.
“No, Matron, I told you. Your time is not yet come.”
“Then I really don't understand. How can I see you?”
“One day, you will know,” he smiled. “Do you remember when Heide said you have a sister?”
“Well, your sister is in Berlin. She is looking for you. If you stay here, she will not find you. No one will find you. Go home, Katarina. It is your only hope.”
“Here? Maria is here, in Berlin? But I told her not to come! She can't be here!”
The eerie light began to fade, and Katarina was alone once more, his final words echoing in her ears.
“Go home, Katarina. It is your only hope.”
“Herr Schiller? Wait! Don't go, don't leave me!”
There was no reply. Katarina was alone once more in the darkness.
She took a deep breath and pushed herself to her knees, and then, with great effort, she stood. Where the strength came from, she couldn't tell, but it was there. Enough to lift her kit-bag onto her shoulder and walk back the way she had come.
She had no thoughts other than finding Maria. That was enough to give her the incentive to push one foot in front of the other and drag herself along.
Time passed, but to Katarina, everything seemed vague. She saw nothing, she felt nothing, until she reached the once gleaming door to her apartment building. It took every ounce of strength she had left just to push her way through the door and into the entrance hall.
She looked at the stairs, but her strength finally failed her. The bag fell from her shoulders as she sank to her knees and pitched forwards onto the cold tiled floor.
Willi had been right, the walk to the hospital had taken over an hour. When Maria and Lotte began to walk back with their kit-bags, the light was almost gone.
As they crossed the bridge over the River Spree, Maria turned to her friend.
“Can we go back to Katarina's apartment?”
Lotte looked troubled.
“Matron, it is almost dark as it is. Willi said that we must get back before nightfall!”
“And will we? Even if we go straight there?”
“Well, no, but...”
“No, so a few more minutes will make no difference. It is also further away from Prinz Albrecht Straße, is it not?”
“Well, I suppose it is,” Lotte sighed.
Maria smiled and extended her hand forwards.
“Then lead on, Nurse Beckmann.”
When they eventually arrived at Potsdamer Platz, darkness had fallen. Not far from the ruined apartment building, there was some kind of activity. Several people with lamps appeared to be leaning over an inanimate object in the road. Maria narrowed her eyes and realised that they were butchering a horse. She shook her head, her heart filled with despair.
“I never thought I would see the day,” she said.
Lotte said nothing but stared at the scene, tears welling in her eyes.
With a gentle tug on Lotte's arm, Maria guided her towards the half-open door, and they squeezed inside.
The apartment was just as they had left it earlier in the day, but still, Maria looked through all the rooms. As before, she found nothing.
When they left, Maria closed the apartment door and sighed. She felt as though she was closing the door to her life as she knew it. Nothing would be the same from then on.
With a heavy heart, she followed Lotte to the stairs. Suddenly, they were startled by a loud crash from below.
They froze and stared at each other. It could only mean trouble!
With extreme caution, Maria slid along the wall and peered carefully around the corner to the landing. In the darkness, she could see nothing.
“It can't be the SS,” Lotte suggested in a whisper. “It's too quiet.”
They waited patiently, but there were no more sounds other than those from outside.
They pressed themselves against the wall and made their way down, step by agonising step.
As they approached the bottom of the staircase, Maria could just make out a dark shape on the floor ahead of her. It was still too dark to be able to tell what it was. She put her hand out to warn Lotte and pointed.
“What's that?” she hissed between clenched teeth.
They remained still and silent. Whatever it was remained motionless.
Maria beckoned the young nurse to follow, and together, they slowly descended the last few steps.
Lotte gasped as they drew close.
“It's a body!” she exclaimed.
Immediately, Maria dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers against the neck of the prone figure.
“Not a body,” she said. “There's a pulse!”
With Lotte on the opposite side, they turned the inert figure over, and immediately Maria gasped.
“Trina! Oh my Lord, what happened to you?”
Katarina opened her eyes.
“Maria?” she whispered, almost inaudibly. “Is it really you?”
Maria immediately burst into tears.
“I thought I had lost you,” she sobbed. “Are you hurt?”
“I... I don't think so,” her sister replied. “I am just so tired.”
Maria lifted her sister to cradle her in her arms and for a while she sobbed uncontrollably. Lotte said nothing as the tears streamed down her own cheeks.
Nobody spoke for a while after that. It was Maria who finally broke the silence.
“We can't stay here. Lotte, Do you have any water?”
The young nurse didn't reply but silently handed her a half-full canteen.
Gently, she raised her sister's head and offered the rim of the flask to her lips. Katarina sipped at the refreshing liquid, but thanks to what the bully Viktor had done to her neck, she found it difficult to swallow.
Maria was worried.
“Are you sure you are not hurt?” Maria asked her.
“Just my throat,” Katarina croaked.
“Can you drink some more?”
Katarina nodded but with some considerable effort.
Maria raised the flask once more, and her sister took a few more sips of the water.
Again, they waited. she didn't want to rush her, just in case she was injured more than she realised.
Eventually, she asked,
“Do you think that you can walk now?”
The response was little more than a squeak.
With Maria on one side and Lotte on the other, Katarina tried to stand but she couldn't. She just didn't have the strength.
Maria turned to Lotte.
“You will have to get back to Willi. Go as quickly as you can, and tell him that Katarina is here but sick. Tell him she needs help!”
Lotte agreed, and within the blink of an eye, she was gone.
While they waited, Maria cradled Katarina in her arms and spoke soothingly to her. She wanted to know everything that had happened, but she could see that Katarina was not in a fit state to tell her. Instead, she talked gently about how they would get away from Berlin and go home to their families.
At this point, Katarina looked up at Maria, tears filling her eyes as she tried to speak.
“They are gone,” she whispered.
“Who are gone?” Maria asked.
“Mama and Papa.”
Katarina's voice was so quiet that Maria could barely understand what she was saying.
“They were arrested and sent to a camp. Sachsenhausen.” She coughed with the effort then groaned in pain. “Schmidt told me.”
Maria caressed her sister's hair.
“No, they weren't, Trina. Willi told me. They escaped.”
Katarina stared at her, eyes wide.
“Willi? Papa's friend? But he...”
Maria put her finger on Katarina's lips.
“Don't try to talk, Trina. Willi survived. He is here in Berlin. He said that your Mama and Papa left Berlin before the Gestapo raided the apartment. They should be at my home in Munich.”
Katarina visibly relaxed.
“Head south,” she whispered.
Maria frowned, and Katarina continued.
“Papa left, cough, a note. I burnt, cough, cough, it.”
“All right, Liebling. Rest now. We can talk later, but your parents are as safe as anyone right now. You just save your energy for your recovery.”
Katarina lay still, but her eyes remained open, looking up at Maria. Correspondingly, Maria looked down at her sister although, in the darkness, she could hardly make out her face.
“Why did you follow me?” Katarina asked, the effort making her cough again. “I told you not to. It was too dangerous.”
“And if I hadn't?” she asked. “Who would have found you?”
Again, Katarina coughed painfully. Her throat felt as though it had been crushed.
“Who was the nurse with you?”
“That is Lotte. I met her in Chemnitz. She said that she knew you. She helped me find you and Willi.”
Katarina looked puzzled. Maria noticed that she was wheezing as she breathed.
“Lotte? Charlotte?” she asked.
“Yes, that's right. Do you remember her?”
Katarina tried to sit up but couldn't.
“Maria, we must go! We have to warn Willi!”
“Warn him?” Maria was stunned. “Warn him of what? Lotte has gone on to him to get help,”
Katarina tried again to get up. This time she succeeded in sitting.
“Charlotte Beckmann was the daughter of a Nazi General, Klaus Beckmann! She came into nursing from the Bund Deutscher Mädel. She cannot be trusted. Help me up, Maria, we have to get out of here!”
Maria wanted to protest, but she understood the urgency. It was hard to believe that her friend was anything but that, a friend. On the other hand, she also understood the need to be safe, first and foremost. There would be time later to ask questions. For now, she just had to trust her sister's judgement.
Katarina seemed to weigh very little, and Maria took her weight effortlessly. What she couldn't carry, though, were the two kitbags. She had no option but to leave them.
As they turned towards the main door, a sudden squeal of brakes made them freeze. There was a crash as a lorry tailgate dropped, followed by the stamping of heavy feet.
As quickly as Maria could move, she half-carried and half-dragged her sister out of the back of the building. They concealed themselves in the piles of rubble, finding the darkest place they could.
Even before they had settled, they heard voices from inside.
“They have been here,” A man's voice said. “There are bags over there, by the stairs.”
“They can't be far,” a younger voice agreed.
Then a female voice.
“Matron Langsdorff was in a bad way. I can't imagine they will be upstairs.”
Maria recognised the voice immediately, Lotte! So she did go to the SS, she thought.
She stared intently at the broken doorway through which they had exited. Every now and then, the dim beam of a hooded lamp would pass over the opening.
For a moment, silence descended. The wheezing from Katarina's breathing seemed so loud that Maria was sure that they would be discovered. The only other thing that she could hear was the pounding of her own heart.
Katarina's breathing became more shallow as she tried to keep quiet, but then, Maria felt as though her heart had stopped when the lamp-beam suddenly passed over her. There was a moment of darkness, and then it returned!
“Over here, I've found them!”
She held her sister tightly. Terror filled her heart as one of the searchers began to climb over the rubble towards them. Katarina was barely breathing, and every inhalation seemed to be louder and more laboured.
“Don't let them take me!” she croaked.
“Matron, it's me! Don't worry, Matron Langsdorff will be all right. My Papa is here.”
The fear suddenly drained away. They both recognised the younger voice.
Almost immediately they were joined by an older man and the nurse, Lotte. She began to apologise.
“I'm sorry, Matron. I didn't go to Kottbusser Damm. It was too far.”
Maria peered at her in the dim light.
“That's alright, Lotte. Maybe it was better. Katarina is very weak.”
Kneeling beside them, the older man introduced himself.
“I am Doctor Sigmund Döring. I believe you have met my son, Markus.”
“Yes, we have met. A very brave boy.”
“Nurse Beckmann has told me about your sister. What happened to her?”
She opened her mouth to tell him but then realised that she didn't actually know. Katarina was in such a weak condition that Maria had considered it better to wait until she was stronger before she asked.
“All I know is that she was arrested by the SS yesterday. We found her here about half an hour ago.”
The doctor raised his lamp to take a closer look. For the first time, Maria noticed the dark contusions on her sister's neck and throat. She choked back a tear as she blurted out.
“Oh my Lord, Trina! What did they do to you?”
Katarina didn't answer but just lay, staring up with half-closed eyes. Her breath was laboured and noisy.
After a brief examination, Doctor Döring sat back.
“Your sister needs to be in a hospital. I don't think she has any major injuries, but she is severely dehydrated, and her temperature is low.”
“No!” Maria hissed. “That would be too dangerous for her. I don't know why she was released, but if they changed their minds, she would be too easy to find there. I think it would be better to take her to Herr Kurschner.”
The doctor frowned.
“You know Herr Kurschner?” he asked.
“Alfred Kurschner, yes. Do you?”
The doctor leaned closer.
“Yes, but it is better not to speak of him here. I agree that we will take Matron Langsdorff there. Markus has, erm, borrowed, a lorry from the army. We must hurry, though. If they notice it missing, we will all be for it.”
With Lotte assisting, Maria reached out and helped her sister to her feet. Between them, they carried Katarina through the ruined lobby and helped her into the cab of the lorry.
Maria climbed in beside her whilst Lotte and Doctor Döring climbed onto the back.
Markus drove carefully. He could barely see the road in the darkness, and Katarina felt every bump as the wheels bounced over bits of rubble and through potholes. More than once, she let out a squeal of pain. Maria held her close to her to try to reduce the effects of the jolting.
Twenty minutes later, Markus stopped outside the apartment building on Kottbusser Damm. Lotte jumped down and went inside. To Maria, the wait felt an eternity. Eventually, Willi appeared and wrenched the door open. Before he had a chance to speak, Maria leapt out and pushed him towards the cab.
“Quickly, Willi. Take her inside. She needs warmth!”
Willi did as he was urged and, firmly but gently, scooped Katarina into his arms.
Running beside him, Maria began to fear the worst. Katarina was barely conscious now. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was so shallow that the wheezing had almost stopped.
Kicking the door to his apartment open, he ran inside and directly to his bedroom, where he laid his charge on the bed. Maria was amazed at how gentle this bear of a man actually was. He then covered her with his blankets.
Moments later, he was gone. Maria could hear him clattering around, putting logs into the stove and filling pans with water.
Lotte and Doctor Döring joined her, the latter carrying out a more detailed examination. As his experienced fingers probed her tender flesh, Katarina could do no more than groan as he examined the obviously damaged parts of her body.
“I'm not sure,” the doctor said as he straightened up. “It could just be bruising, but it could also be a broken rib or two. I just can't tell. Her breathing, though weak, seems clear, so I am hoping that her lungs are alright.”
“I have to get her out of Berlin tonight!” Maria insisted.
The doctor shook his head.
“Out of the question! She must rest. Twenty-four hours should be enough to see which way she goes. If you try to move her now, it could well be the end of her.”
Willi took her hand.
“Siegfried, her father, is my best friend. He trusted me. I cannot let him down. His daughter has come into my care and I will take care of her. Even if I have to die in the process. Let her rest. Tomorrow, or the next day, I will make sure that all three of you get out.”
Maria didn't reply. She had no fight left in her.
She sat down on the edge of the bed as he and the doctor left the room. Through the door, she could hear them quietly talking.
Shortly after, she heard the front door close, followed by the distant sound of the lorry being driven away.
After a few moments of hearing the sounds of activity, the bedroom door opened again. Willi was carrying a steaming bowl of hot potato soup. Along with the small towel that was protecting his hands, he handed it to Maria.
“It's not much, but it is hot. Try to get Fraulein Langsdorff to drink some. Not too much at first. There is enough for both of you. I will leave you for a while. I have things to do.”
Maria took the bowl gratefully.
Willi looked at Lotte.
“Come,” he said with a slight twitch of his head. “I have some for you too.”
Thankful for the solitude, Maria dipped the spoon into the thin soup and lifted it to her lips. Very gently, she blew across it before taking a sip. Willi was right, it was hot! There was a small stand beside the bed so she cleared a space and placed the bowl there. Then she took another spoonful of the liquid and allowed it to cool a little before offering it to her sister's lips. It was such a relief when Katarina accepted the offering and let the soup run into her mouth. With some difficulty, she swallowed it.
Maria alternated. One spoon for her, the next for her sister, until the bowl was empty.
A short time later, Willi returned to take the empty bowl away. For a moment, he stood and smiled. Maria had fallen asleep next to her sister on the bed. He was pleased to see that Katarina now had a little more colour to her face.
Quietly taking the bowl, he retreated from the room, closing the door behind him and leaving them to their much-needed rest.
©Anna Morgan 2021 Copying, reproduction or transmission in any form, whether physically or digitally, without the express permission of the author, is Strictly Prohibited.